Friday, July 31, 2009

House advances food safety

Well, that was fast. After defeating a food-safety bill earlier this week, the House passed HR 2794 yesterday:

By Brian Faler,

The U.S. House approved the biggest overhaul of food-safety laws in decades in the wake of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that sickened, killed and left industries fighting to woo back wary consumers.

The chamber voted 283 to 142 yesterday (July 30) to approve a $3.5 billion measure that would direct the Food and Drug Administration to write new regulations to safeguard the food supply, require more frequent inspections of processing plants and force companies to keep better records to help regulators trace outbreaks. The plan would be partly financed by a $500 annual fee on food producers.

“It will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply and protect American consumers, farmers and business,” said Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. “A series of food-borne disease outbreaks has laid bare unacceptable gaps in our food safety laws.”

Critics said the bill would impose too many rules along with a tax that would probably be passed on to consumers through higher food prices.

Leslie G. Sarasin, president of the Arlington, Virginia- based Food Marketing Institute, which represents companies such as Kroger Co., the largest U.S. supermarket chain, and Safeway Inc., the third-largest grocery chain, said his organization was pleased that the bill would give the Food and Drug Administration new powers, including mandatory recall authority.

“We urge the Senate to approve companion legislation quickly so the industry and government can take the actions required to enhance our nation’s food safety system,” Sarasin said in a written statement.

Twenty Democrats voted against the bill; 54 Republicans supported it. The measure now heads to the Senate where a food- safety bill introduced by Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, is awaiting committee approval.

President Barack Obama, in a statement yesterday, called the House legislation a “major step forward in modernizing our food safety system and protecting Americans from food-borne illness.”

The push for the bill followed food recalls involving cookie dough, spinach and peppers, among other items. Earlier this year, an outbreak of salmonella-tainted peanuts killed at least eight people and sickened 600. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually, 5,000 of which prove fatal.

The FDA oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, with meat, eggs and poultry falling under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.

The FDA, which currently has the authority to recall a handful of products including infant formula, would get expanded power under the bill to have more tainted items yanked off store shelves. The agency also would be allowed to impose quarantines restricting the movement of food deemed a threat to public safety.

The bill would require 360,000 domestic and foreign food facilities to be inspected more frequently, with those deemed the riskiest examined at least once a year. Plants would have to register annually with the government so regulators know “who is doing what,” said Dingell. Produce and processed foods would have to bear labels identifying their countries of origin.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Update: Food safety bill

The House on Wednesday defeated a bill aimed at toughening food safety laws, but there is hope that another will pass before the end of the week. It was six votes short of the needed two-thirds majority needed to pass.

The Washington Post said Democratic leaders were likely to reintroduce the bill Thursday under a special rule, which would require a simple majority for passage.

The bill is strongly supported by the White House and many consumer groups. It would place responsibility on farmers and food processors to prevent contamination before it occurs. The FDA would be required to set safety standards for growing and processing food and increase inspections and enforcement. The agency would be able to mandate the recall of a food if it suspects contamination instead of waiting for the processor to voluntarily call back tainted products.

A Senate version has bipartisan support, the Post said.

Native oysters return to Chesapeake

[Image courtesy of Dave Schulte, Russ Burke, and Rom Lipcius]

Science magazine reports that a team of researchers has successfully restored populations of native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary off the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by Maryland and Virginia. This re-established metapopulation – consisting of spatially separated individual populations – is the largest of any native oyster metapopulation worldwide. The study indicates that similar recovery efforts could be successful elsewhere as well.

Over-fishing and habitat destruction have collapsed native oyster populations worldwide, and in the Chesapeake Bay, populations of native oysters had plummeted to about 1 percent of historical levels. In 2004, David Schulte and colleagues constructed different types of native oyster reefs (high-relief and low-relief) on about 86.5 acres (35 hectares) of river bed in nine protected sanctuaries throughout the Great Wicomico River in Virginia.

Schulte and his team found the height of the reef above the river bed to be the key feature of restoration – with high-relief reefs flourishing and low-relief reefs struggling. In fact, oyster density on the high-relief reefs was five times greater than on the low-relief reefs. Generally, the low-relief reefs have been the construction method of choice by fishery management agencies in the region, but these results demonstrate that high-relief reefs are much more successful at restoring native oyster populations there.

By 2007, the metapopulation of the nine separate reefs consisted of about 185 million adult and juvenile oysters – nearly the total of all oysters in Maryland waters, which is estimated at 200 million.

The researchers say that their restored populations of native oysters are still thriving. This research appears in the July 30 2009 issue of Science Express.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Food safety up for vote

According to Sally Schuff of Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper of agribusiness, a bill that would phase out the non-therapeutic use of seven antibiotics will not be included on the House food safety reform bill, which went to the floor for a vote this morning. Despite rumors the measure could be included, the controversial antibiotics legislation, sponsored by House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) was not folded into the food safety bill as negotiators strove to iron out other differences so the bill could move before the August recess.

H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, a bill for comprehensive reforms o f the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety authorities, was scheduled for a floor vote this morning under the "suspension calendar," which means no amendments will be added and a supermajority vote is required – and believed to be attainable.

The bill was heralded as a model of bipartisan consensus when it was advanced by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on a voice vote earlier this summer. Negotiations on key agricultural issues, led by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, continued to iron out other details late yesterday and final bill language was pending. Informed sources say the bill's exemption for livestock operations from new on-farm inspection authority under FDA remain in the bill. New stricter federal standards sought by the fresh produce industry are believed to be included.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

'Metallic' pine nuts?

Have you experienced a metallic taste in your mouth that lingers for several days? It may be from those pine nuts in your pesto or salad.

Scores of people recently have been reporting "an awful, bitter taste" in their mouths after eating pine nuts, sometimes lasting as long as two weeks.

Reports of an unpleasant taste following consumption of pine nuts circulated in Belgium in 2001, prompting the Poisons Centre there to conduct a comparison of affected and unaffected nut batches. Although they concluded there was no safety threat, no chemical differences were found among the batches.

In recent months, however, the problem has arisen again around the United States and in Britain, and most of the reported incidents involve nuts imported from Asia or Russia. The unexplained phenomenon could have an impact on ingredient sourcing and screening by food manufacturers – although it is unlikely that they will be able to take measures to ensure product quality is not affected until the underlying reason is found.

Even more curiously, the metallic taste is reported to affect only some people who have eaten nuts from an affected batch, and not others.

A blogger on Babyccino, Monica, posted on Feb. 26, 2009:
This is caused by the way the pine nuts was made. I was born and brought up in China. Pine nuts were always bitter. They were sold as sugar covered candies. ... After I came to US, I was surprised to find out that pine nuts is actually a little sweet. We need to help them to improve the process in China by our technology. The bitter taste we feel may not be an issue over there.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency has confirmed that it is taking on the matter – although it emphasised that it is not a food safety issue. “As far as the Agency is aware, no adverse health effects have been associated with these symptoms,” a representative said, but the FSA is inviting people who have experienced the problem to email with details of the pine nuts consumed and how long the metallic taste lasted.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday morning kitchen tips (Week 3)

  • Chefs pound meat not to tenderize the meat, but to help even the meat so it cooks evenly. Thinner meat also cooks faster, but watch it carefully so you don't overcook it.
  • Let raw potatoes stand in cold water for at least half an hour before frying to improve the crispness of french-fried potatoes. Oven fries, too.
  • It's important to let a roast -- beef, pork, lamb or poultry -- sit a little while before carving. That allows the juices to retreat back into the meat and help it firm up. If you carve a roast too soon, much of its goodness will spill out onto the carving board.
  • If you want to prepare a head of garlic at a time, snip off the bottoms and microwave garlic cloves for 15 seconds. The skins will slip right off. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.
  • Rescue stale or soggy chips and crackers: Preheat the oven to 300F. Spread the chips or crackers in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes. Allow to cool, then seal in a plastic bag or container.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A fair proposal

Sacramento readers, take note: The Wine Garden at the 2009 State Fair (Aug. 21 at 10 a.m.-Labor Day at 10 p.m.) is looking for volunteers to pour the award-winning wines (and a lot of non-award-winning white zinfandel, as well) throughout the run of the fair.
If you'd like to do this, go at 6 p.m. Aug. 6 (a Thursday night) to the Wine Garden at Cal Expo (located between buildings A/B and C). Enter the grounds through parking lot D. You'll need a picture ID and will need to fill out some forms. Then you pick as many shifts as you'd like and sign up. You usually get two tickets and a parking pass for each shift, but that may vary.
It's a lot of fun and you get to talk about wine with a wide variety of people. I did it for the last 20 years and learned a lot from it.
For more information: or contact Kem Pence at (916) 263-3159.

Grand ol' food

I didn't do a great job of planning my vacation this summer. If I'd been smart, I would have headed to Nashville this week (I spent three days at a seminar in Sewanee last week, so I wasn't that far away) for the Food Network Southern Food & Wine Festival at Gaylord Opryland, July 31-Aug. 2. The promoters say it will include a variety of exhibitors, food and wine samplings, food competitions, plus live cooking seminars and opportunities to meet Food Network celebrity chefs including Alton Brown, Bobby & Jamie Deen and The Neelys.

A portion of the proceeds from the wine tastings are going to Women Rock For The Cure, a nonprofit organization committed to fighting breast cancer by utilizing the passion, creativity and strength of the entertainment industry to find inspiring ways to raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.